Until this year, Mac owners had three major options for organizing large digital photo collections: Apple’s mainstream iPhoto, Apple’s “pro” app Aperture, and Adobe’s similarly professional-grade Lightroom. When Apple discontinued iPhoto and Aperture in favor of an even more basic app called Photos, many people —amateur photographers and professionals alike — had to decide whether to downgrade to Photos or switch to Lightroom. Apple understood that it was ceding at least the professional market to Lightroom, and even helped Adobe to develop Aperture and iPhoto to Lightroom importers. With the writing on the wall, some people switched to Lightroom 5 well before Photos officially debuted last month.

I didn’t; since Lightroom 5 was almost three years old, I wanted to see what Adobe would deliver in its much-anticipated sequel. On April 21, Adobe released Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC (2015) as standalone and cloud-linked versions of the same app. Both promise major speed improvements over Lightroom 5, new tools and brushes, a new facial recognition feature, automatic HDR and panoramic photo creation, and new slideshow options. As part of Adobe’s “Creative Cloud,” Lightroom CC comes bundled with Adobe’s latest version of Photoshop, plus cloud photo synchronization services, for $9.99 per month. Alternately, Lightroom 6 can be purchased by itself for $149 as a standalone download, minus Photoshop and cloud functionality.

Below, I’m going to focus on the key questions Aperture users have been asking: what it’s like to transition from Aperture to Lightroom — including new details added after initial publication of this article — plus which version of Lightroom to buy, and whether transitioning is a good (and safe) idea. The answers may surprise you…

Key Details:

  • Professional-class digital photo editing and library management
  • Standalone version fully replaces Apple’s Aperture (or iPhoto); subscription version adds cloud photo sync and mobile apps
  • Numerous impressive editing tools work well and quickly
  • Powerful bulk-sharing and photo printing tools, decent book tool
  • Subscription plan costs more over time, but includes Photoshop CC

Question 1: Should I Pick Lightroom 6 or Lightroom CC?

There’s one threshold question you’ll have to answer before using Lightroom: Lightroom 6, or Lightroom CC? The correct answer will be different from person to person, so I’ll lay out the case for each version.

Lightroom 6 is the right choice if you object to paying a monthly subscription fee — a valid concern if you are bringing a large photo library into Lightroom and plan to keep editing it years down the line. You pay Adobe $149 (or $143 on disc) one time, up front, and can use Lightroom 6 for as long as it remains compatible with your Mac’s operating system. Adobe has historically done a good job of keeping its apps working through annual OS X updates, though it has used under-the-hood improvements (such as 64-bit processor and Retina display support) to encourage upgrades.

Lightroom CC is otherwise the right choice. For $9.99 per month, Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography package gives you access to both Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC, which are arguably the best photo organization and editing tools in the marketplace. Technically, the break-even point for subscribing to Lightroom CC relative to buying Lightroom 6 is 15 months of use, but that’s only if you value Photoshop CC (and whatever updates it may receive during that time) at $0. The Creative Cloud Photography package also includes access to Adobe’s cloud services, namely photo syncing between the desktop Lightroom CC and iPad/iPhone Lightroom apps (shown above), which aren’t available with Lightroom 6.

Although I’d personally lean towards buying Lightroom 6 on disc at a small discount, the Creative Cloud Photography bundle is a compelling alternative. Unlike Apple, which has made iCloud-based access completely unaffordable for users with large photo libraries, Adobe’s $9.99/month bundle of organizing and editing apps with cloud syncing between devices is actually reasonable for what’s being offered — assuming you’ll use both apps and the cloud services. Pick the one that’s best for your needs.

Question 2: How Hard Is The Aperture To Lightroom Migration?

I’d like to be able to tell you that the Aperture to Lightroom migration process is dead simple — which it certainly should have been — but in my experience, it wasn’t. For some reason, the app’s initial import process takes you to a part of Lightroom that can only import individual images and folders, not iPhoto or Aperture libraries. To get to the iPhoto/Aperture tools, you need to leave that import screen, go to File > Plug-in Extras, then Import from Aperture Library. At that point, Lightroom hopefully won’t auto-select the wrong library and/or lock up… both of which it did in my case.

Like many other serious photographers, I have a large enough Aperture library that the full-sized original files literally can’t fit on either of my Macs’ internal hard drives, so the images are “referenced,” with originals on an external drive and previews on internal drives. Lightroom didn’t seem to know how to deal with this: it hung when trying to process my iMac’s small referenced library, and hung again when trying to process my MacBook Pro’s larger library. Sometimes, it displayed an error that it had “failed to obtain image version information from Aperture library,” but offered no workaround. When I queried its web-based help system — notably more than two weeks after Lightroom 6 was released — it brought me to this page, which Adobe hadn’t finished filling out:

When I searched Adobe’s web site for solutions, I found that other Lightroom users have been howling about Aperture import issues on Adobe’s web site for months and trying to find workarounds. This was a major disappointment, and for some Aperture users, it will be an unnecessary impediment to transitioning to Lightroom 6 or CC.

To get the process rolling, I created a small sample library in iPhoto and imported it into Lightroom, which worked mostly as expected, though oddly with a giant collection of individual folders — one for every day represented by the photos. Then I started the process of completely de-referencing my Aperture library by moving the library file onto the hard drive where all of the images had been referenced, then combining them together using Aperture’s “consolidate library” feature. After 16 hours, the library was combined, making it possible for Lightroom to transfer everything over… at a rate of 2-4% per hour. Following Aperture’s work, it took more than two additional days for Lightroom to completely import my 194,400-photo library, running on a late-2013 2.6GHz Retina MacBook Pro.

I liked that Lightroom automatically referenced my library, enabling all of the master files to sit on my external hard drive while the MacBook maintained a thumbnailed catalog of all of the images. Despite creating thousands of folders to hold daily clusters of photos, Adobe’s tool performed a proper import of Aperture’s database structure, all neatly organized within Lightroom’s Collections section. Arguably best of all, Lightroom’s catalog required less than 5GB of space on my MacBook’s SSD, versus the 182GB Aperture was using.

As it turned out, however, Lightroom’s importer was — despite a setting claiming that the app would use ample, 2880-pixel-wide previews — actually using super low-resolution thumbnails that had been pre-embedded in my images, while the videos in my collection had no thumbnails at all. A separate and time-consuming step, asking Lightroom to build 1:1 previews, turned out to be necessary to fix this issue, and (not surprisingly) killed the apparent space savings Lightroom initially offered. Photographers with extensive RAW corrections should also note that, as has been amply documented as a limitation of Adobe’s importer, changes made to RAW photos in Aperture are not brought over unless you manually save the edits to each image.

In short, Aperture users aren’t going to enjoy the transfer process, and will need to do some manual tweaking to make Lightroom’s library feel “whole,” but this will likely be a one-time hassle. Similarly, the smaller footprint of the Lightroom library may be a boon for users with little space on their internal hard drives, though there are consequences to improving its preview images that aren’t either initially obvious or as easy as they should be to remedy. Adobe really needs to improve these key elements of the Lightroom migration experience.

Question 3: Assuming You Migrate Successfully To Lightroom, What Is It Like?

Using Lightroom CC/6 isn’t terribly different from using Aperture — it’s mostly a matter of learning where the same basic features are located. Aperture placed its Library, Info, and Adjustments tabs on the top left; Lightroom has similar tools at the top right. Its Library lets you look at filtered and sorted grids of your photographs, compare two or several photographs to one another, and using a tiny People icon, index photos by facial recognition like Apple’s Faces feature. Just like iPhoto and Aperture, Lightroom requires a bit of training to learn individual faces — and will occasionally find a “face” in a photo of a bowl of soup or something else without any trace of facial features, but the facial recognition interface is very easy to use.

I personally prefer the look of Aperture’s main library grid, but Adobe’s black and gray surrounding interface is a better match for the spartan, flattened OS X Yosemite; there’s thankfully no trace of Aperture’s awkward-looking “corkboard and Polaroid photo” UI in Lightroom’s People section, either. You can customize Lightroom’s grid such that photos are shown with ratings, filenames, badges, and other data, or use a less cluttered view with just pictures inside of optionally colored frames.

The Library also is where you can bulk-publish images to Facebook, Flickr, and Behance, including some powerful automatic uploading tools such as watermarking, output optimization, file titling and photo metadata sharing or limiting. SmugMug and several other services are supported via free plug-ins, while exports to Box and other features are offered via a paid Add-ons section of Adobe’s web site.

Develop is Lightroom’s version of Aperture’s Adjustments menu, enabling you to optimize images using sliders and a histogram, as well as make repairs using brushes. While Aperture had a brush with 15 functions, Lightroom has a much larger collection of effects to choose from. Beyond more powerful and adjustable healing and cloning brushes, you can use red eye and pet eye correctors, teeth whiteners and skin softeners, radial and graduated filters, and an adjustment brush with a great selection of other color, brightness, and detail tweaks. Tone curve, split toning, and HSL/Color/B&W adjustments enable you to take highly granular or broad control over the individual colors or light levels in your pictures. And a history bar on the left of the screen lets you easily reverse any changes you’ve made.

Adobe also brings lens correction, camera calibration, sophisticated noise reduction, and grain adjustment features to the table, going well beyond Aperture’s capabilities. Apple fans will particularly appreciate that there are even lens corrections specific to each iPhone model that can be applied with a single click. From my standpoint, there’s no question that the collection of photo editing tools found in Lightroom is cumulatively superior to what Aperture offered.

If the Develop section of Lightroom has any weakness, it’s in the user friendliness department. New features such as the HDR (high-dynamic range photo, above) and Panorama creation tools are hidden under a top-of-screen menu called Photo > Photo Merge > HDR or Panorama, just like the Library section’s People option is buried under a small face icon or Photo > People. But when you do find the features, their settings are generally easy to figure out and work well, even if their interfaces don’t exactly match the rest of Lightroom’s design.

There are other ways that Lightroom feels like it’s trying to catch up with Aperture in the user friendliness department. Once you get beyond Library and Develop, the other top-of-screen headers are basically just alternately named and/or located versions of features familiar to Aperture users. Map is like Aperture’s Places, here using Google Maps and location metadata together. Book lets you create printed books similar to Aperture and iPhoto’s Book feature, albeit with more customization of the actual book materials and far less automatic templating of the book’s contents. Both of these features are functional, but they’re not as fun to use as Apple’s.

Slideshow does away with iPhoto’s and Aperture’s richly animated themes in favor of a more customizable but less pretty slideshow viewer that appears to have been designed for business presentations — crossfades and pan/zoom options are pretty much the only frills here. Print enables you to manage printer output using Adobe’s sophisticated layout tools, watermarking options, and printer profiles. And Web is similar to Apple’s Web Page creator, enabling you to create an HTML5 web gallery from your photos, choosing from several built-in gallery styles that can be lightly customized using colors, different image sizes, and spacing.

One thing I can’t speak to is Lightroom 6’s promised speed improvements relative to Lightroom 5. Adobe has claimed some massive performance boosts for certain tools in this now purely 64-bit version of the software, and though I can’t verify them, Lightroom as a whole feels responsive on both my iMac and MacBook Pro. A section of the preferences notes that Lightroom can capitalize on your video card for faster processing, and I have no reason to doubt that it’s doing so. Even neat tricks, such as the dynamic source-adjusting healing brush above, updated within less than a second whenever I made changes. The only real speed complaint I had was the labored importing process for my old Aperture library.

Questions 4 and 5: So Should I Switch to Lightroom? Is It Safe?

Moving from Aperture to Lightroom feels like transitioning from a 2013 BMW or Lexus to a 2015 Audi or Infiniti. Ninety percent of the daily experience is the same once you look past the cosmetic differences, and the improvements are as much attributable to newer under-the-hood technologies as recently-added features — some of which were done at least a little better in Aperture, while others weren’t, or were completely missing. You’ll certainly find a few completely new features to love after switching to Lightroom, while you’ll also miss Apple’s loupe, right-where-you-want-it auto-straightening tool, and other small conveniences.

Aperture’s strength was on the “art” side, introducing humanizing factors such as facial recognition and gorgeous slideshows, while Lightroom’s is on the “science” side, enabling more powerful editing and bulk photo sharing. Neither approach was definitively better, which is why Aperture and Lightroom remained rivals for so long, but at this point, Lightroom is the last man standing. If you want a professional-class photo organization and editing tool, you either switch to Lightroom, radically downgrade to OS X Photos, or keep using Aperture until it just won’t boot any more on your Mac.

My personal sticking point in switching from Aperture to Lightroom can be summed up in one word: “subscriptions.” Ever since I bought Aperture in early 2011 for $80, it’s been open on my Mac every single day. If I started paying $10 a month for it starting four years ago, it would have cost over $500 to keep using until it was discontinued. Alternately, it would have cost around $230 to pay $10 per month for Lightroom 5 from the day it was released to the day it was replaced. I love my photo collection, but no piece of photo management software is worth that much. That’s why I would much sooner buy Lightroom 6 outright for $149 (or less on disc) than keep paying $10 every month I want to use it. For me, a standalone app offers a less expensive, safer transition.

Lightroom 6 exists because Adobe understands this objection, but Lightroom CC offers more value if you’re willing to pay $10 for it, Photoshop, and Adobe’s cloud services. It also has an option for people who stop their subscriptions: Lightroom still loads on your machine, and you can still access your photo library, but the Develop and Map features won’t work, nor will synchronization with the mobile Lightroom apps. Since you can still see and organize your photos, an upgrade to Lightroom CC is “safe,” but when you lose the extra features, the software is far less useful. If you consider the cloud sync and editing tools valuable, and appreciate the prospect of getting continuous upgrades to Lightroom and Photoshop, Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography package may work better for you.